For avid holiday shoppers across the country, the day after Thanksgiving is almost more important than Thanksgiving itself. Department stores kick off the season with jaw-dropping sales, Santa Claus makes his debut at local malls, and names are checked off gift lists. Ever since I was old enough to fill a piggy bank with my own spending money, I’ve been one of the die-hard Black Friday shoppers bundled up outside of Macy’s at 4 a.m. After all, there’s nothing like welcoming the holidays with a pocket full of money to spend on gifts for friends and family, and, of course, a steaming peppermint mocha from Starbucks … or is there?
With unemployment rates reaching record highs and businesses struggling to give holiday bonuses, stores across the country face a different fate this holiday season as families reconsider their budgets in light of the nation’s economy. The truth is that no matter how much budget-shifting families do in the next couple of weeks, the one place where everyone can cut back is on gifts. I know parents who, in spite of realizing how trivial it is for the tree to be swimming in wrapping paper, can’t help but worry about their kids’ reactions on Christmas morning. It may be that nothing compares to watching loved ones unwrap the gifts they’ve always wanted, but all of the concern about families being forced to downsize their Christmases is casting a shallow light on our values. Are we really that materialistic?
What happened to Christmas? What happened to the spirit of selfless giving? Do we value presents more than everything else the holidays embody? When I think back to my childhood, I remember dressing the tree with my cousins and decorating cookies with my grandmother, but I certainly don’t remember what gifts my parents gave me. Christmas time has always meant bonding, laughing, cooking, and eating with the people I love the most. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a time and place for giving a gift to someone special, but there’s a significant difference between exchanging presents and giving someone a gift; one is based strictly on tradition while the other is rooted in genuine generosity.
We are actually quite fortunate this year; it’s inevitable that we’ll be rediscovering the true meaning of generosity due to the economic climate, because people simply can’t spend as much on gifts as they have in the past. What they can do though is remember that friends love chocolate-dipped pretzels and peppermint bark even more when they’re homemade. Or, they can realize that the names on their Christmas lists are people whom they really care about, and it only takes a card to remind them of that. Quite honestly, I’d like to see us take it a step further.
It seems counterintuitive to give money away when there’s hardly enough to give in the first place, but a dollar for a homeless shelter or soup kitchen can do so much more for humanity than it can at a department store. After all, as much as we are finding ourselves short of money this holiday season, local shelters are struggling even more to make ends meet. My hometown’s newspaper, The Columbian, recently published an article about the “exploding need and dwindling resources” facing food banks and shelters in Vancouver, Wash. It describes how charitable contributions from foundations, businesses, and especially individual donors are drying up due to the recession. And while the nonprofits are doing everything they can to survive, from putting less food in each meal box to applying for more grants, some, like Vancouver’s North County Community Food Bank, can’t even manage to keep staples like peanut butter on the shelves.
Clearly, these shelters need our dollars more than family and friends need iTunes gift cards or new clothes, and it’s the best time of year to lend a hand. So take advantage of the opportunity this Christmas to really make a difference by digging deeper than ever in both your pockets and your hearts. It may be our tradition to herald in the season by standing in line on Black Friday, but others may be greeting the cold months by standing in line at a soup kitchen. I hope we can find it in ourselves to help the less fortunate this Christmas. I hope we can welcome the holiday spirit for what it really is.